Eiffel 65’s 'Blue (Da Ba Dee)' is playing out of the speakers of our family computer.
“Yo listen up, here’s the story about a little guy that lives in a blue world.”
Yes, the little guy is me, I’m in high school and have just figured out how to use Napster.
It’s 1999 and our household has been connected to the internet for a few years, but in order to get online I have to make sure nobody is using the phone. Then I wait patiently while the modem dials up with the echoes of digital white noise followed by a series of ding-dongs that sound like a 1950s robot. There’s a moment of silence and then… success! I am online, or as my dad would say: on the line. Information superhighway, here I come! Well, it was more like an information slow lane. Our internet connection was slow and images would load like a broken automatic garage door.
My crash course in the internet in the mid-90s involved visiting websites that theorised who shot Mr Burns on The Simpsons, spending hours downloading film trailers and looking up screensavers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer because screensavers were a form of self-expression at the time. The dream was to have someone I was trying to impress come over and see my cool screensaver, and they’d say something like, “rad screensaver,” and then I’d act like it was not a big deal even though it was huge deal… this never happened.
As the years ticked by there were more things to do on the internet. Frenetic chat rooms evolved into messenger programs like ICQ and MSN Messenger. Each night I’d log on to chat with friends while my parents thought I was researching homework. In the ’90s it wasn’t just a computer yet – it was the computer. But as exciting as it was to exchange emoticons and witty teen banter via these chat programs, something was missing.
One day a friend told me he kept busy during chat sessions by making playlists of his favourite songs on the computer. With CDs? Nope, the songs came from a free program called Napster. But how do the songs play on a Discman? They don’t, you play them off the computer. Mind. Blown. I was terrible with pocket money and never had the patience to save cash to buy CDs; most of my music lived on cassette tapes with songs recorded off the radio. CDs were reserved for birthdays and Christmas (or when I had the confidence to beg).
I downloaded Napster and searched for the hits: Santana’s 'Smooth', TLC’s 'No Scrubs', Britney Spears’ 'Baby One More Time' – they were all there. I began to download my favourite songs while the hard drive on the computer groaned as the playlist expanded rapidly. Need an mp3 of Smash Mouth’s 'All Star'? I’ve got it. By day I was a regular teen, by night I was downloading entire back catalogues of music.
Napster was not only a great resource for new music, it was an excellent way to find rare music or when I liked but didn’t know the name of a song or artist. Internet search engines didn’t always provide answers, the web was still growing, so I’d type lyrics into the Napster search box and hope for the best. Sometimes I’d download a live version by accident or a cover that exposed me to a new band; it was a trend for punk bands to cover popular songs at the time. If there was an awesome song used in a film, I’d rush home from the cinema to track it down online.
Downloading music became an obsession. Did I have any idea that what I was doing impacted the music industry? Nope. All the dumb, thoughtless things I did as a teenager applied to Napster as well.
Napster spread via word of mouth and I didn’t realise the music industry was suffering until it became a news story. When Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich began to front the media about his band’s plan to sue Napster, I panicked thinking the next target on their list was me. But it was mind-boggling to think about lawyers going after the millions of people using Napster worldwide. The media and record industry tried hard to portray Napster users as pirates with sinister intentions, but it truly was an entire generation of teenagers who wanted a copy of The Vengaboys’ 'We Like to Party' on the computer.
There was a pack mentality to how I justified downloading music; it was fine as long as everyone was doing it. Napster was also a training ground for how I could use the internet to get what I wanted. The on-demand behaviour of ‘give people what they want, when they want it’ led to the entire entertainment industry adjusting their business plans to accommodate new technology that would birth iTunes and the iPod, Netflix and Spotify.
Napster was eventually shut down in 2001 and my gigantic playlist suffered a similar fate. One day my dad wondered why the computer was running so slowly. A search of the hard drive uncovered mp3 files hogging gigantic amounts of space. My dad hit ctrl + A and delete. I was devastated.
After the great mp3 purge I made sure to always buy hard copies of my favourite songs.
System Shock: How The Mp3 Changed Music airs on SBS VICELAND and streams at SBS On Demand at 8.30pm Friday 16 October 2020.
For a second year running, Ben is joined (remotely) by John Beohm, to re-enact the spectacle of the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards complete with hazmat suits, hotel phones ringing, Jennifer Aniston putting out garbage fires, Canadian bubbles, and an alpaca.